(First published in International Socialist Review)
OVER THE course of 2006, the attacks on Muslims and the vilification of Islam has been relentless. When Muslims protested the cartoons that caricatured Islam published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, they were denounced for not appreciating Western values of “free speech.” When a United Arab Emirates company was to take over the running of six U.S. ports from a British company in early 2006, the Democrats and Republicans whipped up a xenophobic frenzy. After Hezbollah defeated Israel in the Lebanon war, Bush referred to Hezbollah as an “Islamofascist” organization, and stated that “Islamic fascism” was the biggest threat facing the United States. Tony Blair talked about an “arc of extremism [in a] specifically Muslim version” stretching across the Middle East. Then the Pope suggested that Islam was violent and that “reason” was more at home in the West. British Cabinet Minister Jack Straw advised Muslim women not to wear veils because the practice had “implications of separateness” which creates “parallel communities.” And right behind him came Tony Blair himself, blithely supporting his bigoted minister.
In his address to the nation on September 11, 2006, President Bush’s arguments revealed the perverse logic of Islamophobia today:
Since the horror of 9/11, we’ve learned a great deal about the enemy. And we have learned that their goal is to build a radical Islamic empire where women are prisoners in their homes, men are beaten for missing prayer meetings, and terrorists have a safe haven to plan and launch attacks on America and other civilized nations. The war against this enemy is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, and the calling of our generation…. This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization. We are fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations.
The common thread that ties together all these attacks on Islam is a polarized view of the world. On one side are the values of freedom, democracy, rationality, women’s rights, liberty, and civilization; all associated, furthermore, with Christianity. On the other side are a people who are irrational, evil, barbaric, and uncivilized; who hate freedom and democracy and want to create, according to Bush, an Islamic empire stretching from Europe to South East Asia.
What is striking about this characterization of “the West” and “Islam,” is not only the degree of hyperbole but the fact that it finds resonance within the wider culture. Today, it has become commonplace for media pundits, not only on Fox but also on CNN, to call for the racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims. Hollywood has churned out a steady stream of films that portray Arab Muslims either as terrorists incapable of being reasoned with, or as sheiks and belly-dancers. Disney’s Alladin, for instance, begins with a song that describes Arab society in the most stereotypical terms and then concludes: “It’s barbaric, but hey—it’s home.” When the Pope issued a statement expressing regret over Muslim reactions to his comments, but not directly apologizing for equating Islam with violence, a poll found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the Pope had done enough to apologize to Muslims.
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